Being a Female in the Kingdom: Women Drivers in Saudi Arabia

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By Sara Obeid*

To most, having a chauffeur is a luxury. But to a Saudi woman, it is an obligation and her only means of transportation. Many Saudi women do not consider having a chauffeur a luxury, but rather a financial burden that consumes 30% of their income and obstructs both their ability to work and get an education, each of which require commuting.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is the only place in the world where women can own cars but not drive them. In a country where women represent 44.78% of the total population, half of the population cannot move freely. Consequently, only 17.7% of the labor force in the KSA is female.

saudis on bike

However, it is important to note that there is no law that bans women from driving; it is just that driver’s licenses are only issued to Saudi men and never to Saudi women. In fact, only this year were Saudi women given the right to ride a bicycle, but for fun not transportation…and only so long as a male relative was also on the bike!

With all of their wealth it’s often difficult to sympathize with the Saudis, but this shouldn’t dismiss the fact that these women are human beings who lack personal freedom and the ability to fully belong to one’s own society. The most painful aspect, however, is that they suffer simply because they are women, a fact they had no part in choosing and no option of changing (well, at least not in the KSA). If I were Saudi, I would resent God for creating me as a woman and my religion for taking advantage of this fact.

Why Not Drive?

Saudi Arabia is ruled by a strict interpretation of Islamic law whereby the king confers with a council of all male members. Nevertheless, the state has been unable to justify this ban as based upon religion!

Interestingly, we find it reported in the highly recognized Hadith of Abu Huraira:

“I heard Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) as saying: The women of the Quraish are good amongst the womenfolk. They ride camels and show affection to their children and zealously guard the wealth of their husbands.”

Women in those times were praised for commuting, on their own, in order to do good things. They were not accompanied by a male relative, nor were they half as busy as a 21st century educated woman!

Some of the given reasons for restricting women drivers include the belief that driving a car:

  • Involves uncovering the face,
  • Leads women to leave the house more often and hence fail to fulfill their duties at home,
  • Allows women to interact with non-mahram males (non-relatives),
  • Results in more accidents and increased traffic,
  • Threatens traditional values, and
  • Leads to gender desegregation.

God saysOthers have claimed that “Islam wants [women] to be treated like queens, therefore [they] shouldn’t drive.” But many women do not want to be “queens,” they simply want to be treated like citizens.

In essence, the issue is with tradition, not God’s law.

King Abdullah has himself recently expressed support for women drivers, but only “when the society is ready,” precisely because “society” fears what women might claim next. As we know from history, many societies have sacrificed women on the altar of tradition.

And lest we forget, Christianity has also had its fair share of prejudice toward women in its checkered past, with many church fathers (and even contemporary leaders) expressing similar prejudices against women.

In the Gospels, however, tradition is precisely what we find Jesus consistently defying amongst the religious leaders of his day, whenever tradition becomes more important than the human person and whenever religious rituals take precedence over God himself.

What have women done and why?

On October 26th, over 60 Saudi women got behind the wheel of their cars in an intentional act of civil disobedience to protest the ban on women drivers. Movements of this sort first began in 1990, when women who took part were fired from their jobs and banned from leaving the country. At the time, people feared supporting the movement. Now, however, even religious leaders have been refusing to report women drivers.

According to The Economist:

“Arab women have made huge, if uneven strides since the issue of their rights arose a hundred years ago. Female education was once virtually unknown…Today, even in arch-conservative Saudi Arabia, two-thirds of university students are women.”

Yet, the right to travel is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the rights of a Saudi woman. It is her first step in claiming these rights as her own, rather than dismissing them as a “western attempt to alter Saudi society.”

Haifa Mansour, the first female Saudi director once said:

“Saudi is a country which doesn’t like noise, and if the approach is too aggressive, the conservatives become closed and defend their values really strongly. The majority of Saudi is conservative so you don’t want to place them in that position, but take them with you on that journey.”

we can do itAt the same time, if we do nothing to claim our rights as Middle Eastern women, nothing will change. And these patriarchal traditions will continue to dominate us. So when these women used their international licenses to drive, they were able to expose the injustice inherent within Saudi society, all without breaking the law or violating their moral integrity.

Citizenship in the Kingdom of God

As a Lebanese woman, my country is undoubtedly the most liberal of all Arab countries. However, I still don’t feel like a full citizen as I am not permitted to pass down my nationality to my children and the government is still debating whether to criminalize domestic violence.

Will we women never enjoy the benefit of full citizenship? Is this why most of the time we feel like we do not quite “belong” to that society within which we long to live.

But there is one thing I do know. In God’s Kingdom:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).

God not only offers us salvation but also equal gifts and opportunities on earth, for both sons and daughters. Jesus spoke up to defy tradition and in doing so he set things back into the perspective of God’s Kingdom.

Therefore, whether I am a woman in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia or a woman in the United Kingdom, I am welcome in the Kingdom of God…with full rights!

Sara pic*Sara Obeid is the Communication Officer at ABTS. She has a degree in Environmental Health from the American University of Beirut and has experience in advocacy campaigns related to peace-building and environmental activism.

3 thoughts on “Being a Female in the Kingdom: Women Drivers in Saudi Arabia

  1. If saudi arabia lets women drive,stop threatening gay people and enforce sharia more relaxed to non arabs,then it will be a really ok state in my opinion (im from greece).i cant understand why everyone gets mad on saudis.They’ve chosen the Law of their god,so what?they dont hurt other states

  2. Thank you Sara so much for a fascinating exploration of a highly disputed topic.
    Very informative and well written.
    Your reflection on Lebanese women is also compelling. I think this article may serve as a kernel of a broader piece on women in the Arab World in general. Thank you.
    Every blessing.
    Ayman

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